Over the course of the Star Wars saga, very few individuals have as successful a batting average as Sheev Palpatine. Anakin, for all his showmanship, failed spectacularly in many ways. Yoda’s career was legendary, but it’s just as remarkable for his endurance and longevity as anything else. At first, Palpatine was the kind of player whose abilities are put to use behind the scenes, making power plays and setting up situations to twist the outcome of the game to his ends; eventually, he stepped off of the bench and allowed his skills to flare up as he wiped out his cross-town rivals, the Coruscant Jedi. Sports analogies aside, my interest in Palpatine has always been in how consistently he can use the power of the dark side of the Force to come out on top. From orchestrating the Clone Wars, to the seduction of Anakin, to the rise of the Empire, Palpatine very rarely fails, and when he does, there is often a small sense of victory still smoldering in the ashes. What is his goal though? I think the easiest answer is that he wanted to eradicate the Jedi and establish himself as Emperor, but if that were the case, you would think he would just be kicking back on a tropical planet (maybe Scarif?) letting the golden sun warm his sagging skin as he sips on a Jogan fruit smoothie after Revenge of the Sith. Vader should be able to handle the clean-up. Palpatine does not rest though. Once the Empire is built, he doesn’t seek the sunny beaches because that’s not his way. He rules from afar and allows the fierce engine that is the Empire to continue to press the fear and hopelessness out of its citizens as he continues to pull at the gentle threads of the galaxy, learning long lost Sith secrets that will help him establish something even greater than the Empire.
Palpatine never really shows indication that he cares to rule the Empire. We are certainly never given any indication that it makes him happy, and while many would say that Palpatine is just not a very happy person, we do see him happy in episodes of the Clone Wars animated series and the films. In the episode, “The Lawless,” Palpatine laughs incessantly during his battle against Savage Opress and Darth Maul. Even as Darth Maul is writhing on the ground asking for mercy, Palpatine only responds with a laughter as shocking as his Force lightning. In Revenge of the Sith, as he cuts down Kit Fisto and the rest of Mace Windu’s “Palpatine Patrol,” Palpatine chortles. During his showdown in the senate against Yoda, Palpatine laughs with glee as he tosses senatorial pods after his little green opponent. He exhibits similar behavior during Luke’s battle against Vader in Return of the Jedi. After goading Luke into attacking him, Palpatine cackles as Vader brings his own lightsaber to bear in order to protect his master. It is in these moments when he is committing personal acts of cruelty that Palpatine takes the most joy.
In contrast with the happiness Palpatine takes in his acts of hatred, we see few examples of him being happy in ruling the Empire. He doesn’t take a very active hand in the leadership of the Empire instead choosing to lead through an inner circle of subordinates like Mas Amedda. HIs rule looks more like a flow chart of delegation rather than the monarchy we often think of it as being. During a discussion with Darth Vader in the novel Tarkin, Palpatine shows how little the Empire means to him:
“Ah, so you’re arguing on Tarkin’s behalf, are you?”
“For the Empire, Master.”
“The Empire?” Sidious repeated, miming surprise. “Since when do you put the needs of the Empire before our needs?” (Luceno, 90).
The Empire and its needs are second to the needs of the Sith, so it stands to reason that there must be a reason why Palpatine needs the Empire. It all ties back to that coming new hope. As the Empire raises its flags on more and more worlds, the inhabitants are forced into slavery and submission. Fear and despair rule. Just as it was during the dispute with the Trade Federation during The Phantom Menace and while the Clone Wars raged, Palpatine’s dark arts were fueled by the fear, anger, hate, and suffering the Empire inflicted. Even among his subordinates, Palpatine created a cycle of fear and envy that only served to make him stronger. The officers lusted after the power Palpatine dispensed and would employ whatever treachery they had to get it, and most expected the same thing from those under their command. Palpatine had created a system that birthed thousands of mini-Palpatines whose negative actions only brought more dark energy back to him. The Empire is a means to an end. It’s a perpetually running engine that supplies its Emperor with the raw material he needs to accomplish his true goal.
Since Palpatine does not spend much time ruling the Empire, he must have found some other activity to occupy his time. During the time of the Empire’s rule, Palpatine spent much of his time at a Sith temple that lay beneath the Jedi Temple on Coruscant. While there, he meditated on the nature of the dark side in order to learn the last bits of knowledge that lay just beyond his reach and in doing so kept true victory just beyond his grasp. Tarkin reveals one of the secrets Palpatine was searching for when it describes how the Force could manifest some form of will in order to strike back against the darkness:
“Darth Plagueis had once remarked that ‘the Force can strike back.’ … Attacks like the one directed against Tarkin’s moon base and discoveries like the one on Murkhana were distractions to his ultimate goal of making certain that the Force could not strike back, and that whatever faint light of hope remained could be snuffed out for good” (104).
It’s no coincidence that the word hope is used here. Palpatine knows that eventually a new hope will rise with the Force as his or her ally, and if it does, that individual could dismantle the mechanism he spent so long building. The Empire could fall and with it Palpatine’s chance to plumb the depths of the dark side. He doesn’t seclude himself in the Sith temple because he likes the decor (shadowy with just a hint of musk!). He does so because there he can connect in a deeper way with the dark side and rip out its secrets, so that he can become so powerful that not even the Force itself could hope to stop him.
If Palpatine could essentially neuter the Force’s ability to resist him, what greater power could he achieve? Once again, Tarkin provides a clue. As he ruminates on his plans, Palpatine recounts a rumor of a power that may just be the darkest of all:
“He would not allow himself to be sidetracked from his goal of unlocking the secrets many of the Sith Masters before him had sought: the means to harness the powers of the dark side to reshape reality itself; in effect, to fashion a universe of his own creation. Not mere immortality of the sort Plagueis had lusted after, but influence of the ultimate sort” (232).
The ability to reshape reality. The thought is a terrifying one because it is so absolute. Even the most noble person has the potential for darkness, and no matter how hard we try to contain it that darkness seeps through sometimes. Palpatine is not noble though. History under his pen would be one of subjugation and erasure. No Order 66 would be necessary because with a casual flick of his wrist Palpatine could wipe the Jedi from history. Those pesky Wookiees always fighting the yoke of oppression? They never climbed out of the primordial ooze of Kashyyyk’s oceans. This is Palpatine’s goal, not the elimination of the Jedi or the establishing of an Empire, those are not enough. Palpatine wants “Power. Unlimited power.”
What secrets remain buried deep in the bowels of Coruscant where the Sith temple resides? How close to accomplishing his goal was Palpatine? We may never know, but there is the chance that these lines were seeds planted innocuously by the Lucasfilm story group for future stories. When Kylo Ren promises his grandfather that he will finish what Vader started could he be referring to this plan? Perhaps Palpatine was not alone in his search. Perhaps the cycle of betrayal and murder established by the rule of two was already in motion. A future film could see Kylo Ren discovering the Sith temple and continuing Palpatine’s research, and if he could reshape the universe as he wished, the universe would be thrown into chaos because that’s what lies at the heart of Ben Solo.
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